The Knorren is a broken mass of yellow, cream, grey and ochre rock that rises out of the side of its parent mountain, the Penken. One side is made up of steep stone faces, pinnacles and buttresses above a field of boulders and bushes. The other side, facing the valley below, is covered in trees and vegetation. A via ferrata (klettersteig in German) ascends the rock faces of the Knorren by alternating between sometimes strenuous vertical climbing and easier traverses. After reaching the summit, this via ferrata traverses and then descends the spiny crest of the Knorren before negotiating a buttress that stands just apart from the main peak. This via ferrata is easily my favourite of the three I climbed in Austria. It is in a wonderful location with amazing rock and climbing that is fun and occasionally surprising.
I initially wasn’t that interested in climbing the Klettersteig Knorren as it’s a fairly small via ferrata, with only 180m of cable and only 50m of altitude difference between the start and the summit. It’s also a reasonably easy grade (B/C) and described in the guides as a good route for beginners looking to try out via ferrata.
There were two reasons I changed my mind and decided to give the Klettersteig Knorren a go. The first was that its position on the top of Penken meant that there would be good views of the Zillertal and higher peaks of the Tirol to the south. The second was that Valerie was interested in an easier reintroduction to climbing via ferrata and I needed a straightforward, short climb to introduce her father John to the delights of via ferrata.
Shortly after I decided that I did, after all, want to climb the Klettersteig Knorren, it looked like I wouldn’t be able to. The guides to via ferrate in the Zillertal suggest that the Klettersteig Knorren is reached by taking the Penkenbahn cable car from the centre of Mayrhofen and then the Gondelbahn lift, followed by a short walk west along the Penken. Unfortunately, when I went to check the opening times, I found that the Penkenbahn station in Mayrhofen was a building site. The station and cable cars were being upgraded and it wouldn’t reopen until the start of the 2015/16 ski season. Thankfully, Valerie noticed that there was a cable car from Finkenberg, just down the road from Mayrhofen, which also goes up the Penken. So we headed to Finkenberg.
From the Finkenberger Almbahnen top station it was only a walk of about 10 minutes east to the Knorren. Unfortunately, finding the start of the via ferrata took about another 10 minutes as the topo in the guide is drawn as if you are approaching the Knorren from the Penkenbahn and the map in the guide was a bit too simple to easily identify where we were going. The map and the topo gave us enough indications of where to go to head in the right general direction and we soon found a signpost and a series of blue dots painted on rocks that marked the path to the start of the climb.
The start of the Klettersteig Knorren is one of its surprises, as it’s probably the hardest part of the whole climb. A series of stemples form a ladder up a rock face of a slightly negative gradient. The overhang isn’t at too much of an angle, but it’s enough to make this section harder going than we were expecting. Standing at the top and looking down at John beginning to climb, I wondered if the first few metres of via ferrata climbing he had done might be enough to put him off the whole experience permanently.
Fortunately, John tenaciously and steadily climbed up. There were a few more grade C sections that required a bit more technical climbing and/or more effort, but they didn’t have the sting of the start. The climbing was actually great fun, being varied, interesting, often exposed and on gorgeous rock. There were a couple of lovely traverses that required some smearing and/or careful footwork. There was a corner to climb around and other upward stemple sections.
One of the other surprises on the climb was that, strangely, the via ferrata and various sport climbing routes on the Knorren intersected at a couple of points. I wondered how the two different types of climbers managed if they happened to arrive at one of these intersections at the same time. I also guessed that using a via ferrata stemple while going a sports climb would be tempting if you were tired or having some trouble, but that it would probably count as cheating.
Having reached the top, we followed the crest of the Knorren through bushes and then down a rocky crest to a dark corner between the Knorren and a separate buttress of rock. Some slippy climbing brought us back into the sun near the top of this. As if to give a parting shot to us and finish as it began, the last surprise of the Klettersteig Knorren was a steep ladder of stemples down the front of the buttress. Although it wasn’t overhanging, some of the stemples were very widely spaced and it required a bit of thought and effort to get down. We went off to reward ourselves at the nearby Penken Panorahmarestaurant with lunch, ice-cream and beer by a fantastic view of the high peaks of the Zillertal.
On the walk back to the Finkenbergbahn we took a slight detour to go to the Granatkappelle (Garnet Chapel) devoted to the Blessed Engelbert Kollard, a Franciscan priest who was born locally. It’s a beautiful and amazing building that’s unlike any other chapel I’ve seen. Its rusted sides are in the shape of a cut garnet and it sits as if one of its edges has been imbedded in a concrete plinth. The inside of the chapel is an intimate space lined full of angles and perfectly crafted local wood. That the chapel is somewhat incongruous atop a mountain, above a deep blue lake and with a vista of peaks and valleys, is part of what makes it such a wonderful building. By being so eye-catching, strong and simple in such a pretty alpine setting, it felt like the chapel made me see it and the landscape differently. I also thought that the garnet shape was a brilliant way of ensuring it sheds snow and withstands high winds.
It turned out that John had enjoyed his first taste of via ferrata enough that he returned for more a few days later, doing the Klettersteig Huterlaner with my sister- and brother-in-law. For me it was a perfect little climb and exactly the sort of day I love in the mountains.
The Klettersteig Knorren also goes by the names of the Klettersteig Penken or Klettersteig fur Jedermann.
There is a description and topo of the Klettersteig Knorren in a great booklet on the via ferrate and climbing in the Zillertal that is published by the local tourist information office. This is available at the tourist information offices and online. There is another, similar guide that includes much of the same information on the Klettersteig Knorren, but also a basic map showing where the start is.
The sport climbing at the Knorren looked like great fun and there are topos for these in the two booklets mentioned above and there is also information on UKClimbing.